Senior Ben Samuel likes to watch the football games at Clairemont High — but the stadium can sometimes be difficult to navigate in his wheelchair.
The long, zig-zagging ramp down to the bleachers is too narrow for more than one chair. It leads down to a gravel track that some students can’t cross. Even after the school district tried to make the stadium more accessible, it’s still hard for visitors with wheelchairs to reach the opposite side of the field.
And because there are too few seats for all Clairemont students during pep rallies or other school-wide events, students without disabilities often spill onto the ramp, making it unusable for teens with wheelchairs. Federal observers found that the stadium was still inaccessible last year, even after an initial batch of repairs.
San Diego Unified promised to fix those problems with the money it got from Proposition S, a new construction bond that voters approved last year. It even set a timeline, pledging to finish the fixes by December 2010.
But now San Diego Unified is likely to break that pledge. It plans to finish repairs in 2015. The school district has been forced to delay projects as revenue from its construction bond plunges. That has parents and employees wondering why other plans, particularly a new school in the proposed downtown library, are scheduled earlier. Clairemont parents are incensed.
“We’ve been waiting since 1995,” said Gerry Knuppel, who teaches physical education for Clairemont students with disabilities. Though parents only filed a complaint last year, getting access to the stadium has been a problem for much longer. “And now they’re saying we have to wait until 2015.”
The financial pinch has squeezed money for building and renovating schools, too. As home values dropped, so has the revenue  that San Diego Unified reaps from property taxes that voters approved. The school district will eventually get all the money that voters agreed to — but it will take longer.
“Every dollar is precious at this point,” said Jim Watts, San Diego Unified’s planning director.
So San Diego Unified is delaying up to $96 million  in repairs and renovations at Clairemont and more than two dozen other schools for as long as four years. Because of state cutbacks, the Division of the State Architect is now taking up to six months longer than usual to approve projects, pushing them back even further.
Many parents are galled that repairs at their schools are being postponed while San Diego Unified carves out time and money for other projects, including digital whiteboards and the new school in the downtown library. Both of those projects have gotten the blessing from the school board — and both have coveted spots early in the schedule.
Mission Bay High parents who argue that their worn athletic fields are “a lawsuit waiting to happen ” have questioned putting the library first. Clairemont parents also singled out the library school.
“They want to build a new downtown school — yet they haven’t met the needs of our current students,” said Margie Fish, whose youngest son graduated from Clairemont this year. Her father, who has a disability, was unable to see his grandsons play football in years past.
Classroom technology has stayed at the top of the bond list. The school board has backed the idea of digitizing classrooms with computerized whiteboards, voice amplifiers and netbooks for each student as a way to engage kids and boost their achievement.
But it brings a tradeoff. Because San Diego Unified is installing more than $300 million in classroom technology — at least $200 million in the first five years of the bond — there is only enough spare money for a handful of other projects in 2011, 2012 and 2013.
Delaying the technology upgrades would throw off the district’s strategy for rolling out the new tools. Each year, the next grade gets the technology. “You don’t just get it in third grade and then have a gap,” Watts said. “There’s continuity for the kids.”
The price tag for the downtown library school is much lower than for the technology — $20 million — so it has less impact on the schedule. But scheduling it early means that other projects must go later, because schools have a limited amount of money to spend each year. Watts explained that the downtown library school can’t be moved around as easily, because it depends on the city, which is planning the larger project.
Though it is only one of several projects scheduled to happen this year and next, parents have focused their ire on the library school because it wasn’t originally planned. Some question whether it is really needed.
Many of the delayed projects have been identified as pressing needs, but Clairemont has another wrinkle: Fish and other parents filed a formal complaint with the civil rights office of the U.S. Department of Education about the school’s problems. After that complaint was lodged, former Superintendent Terry Grier agreed to make the fixes by next December.
While Clairemont waits, it is trying to work around the problems. Jesus Montana, its campus police officer, estimated that for every game or pep rally, the school spends more than $80 to hire a security assistant whose only job is to ensure that the ramp is clear and only one wheelchair uses it at a time.
The federal government could penalize San Diego Unified for delays, but both sides say they are working together to avoid that. Watts said the school district is trying to squeeze the Clairemont repairs into the schedule earlier if possible. San Diego Unified has yet to hammer out an agreement with the civil rights office, but assistant general counsel Patrick Frost said they’ll likely meet early next year.
“Enforcement is a last resort,” said Jim Bradshaw, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. “But it is a resort.”
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